By Dr. Jayavani Moodley, Medical Director, Integrated Hospital Medicine, Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital
Last week, my son started kindergarten. Unfortunately, what could have been a normal, exciting experience for both him and us is now something marked by anxiety and fear due to the delta variant.
What’s hard as a physician is knowing I can’t do more to help him directly since he is too young and ineligible to receive the vaccine against COVID-19. So he must rely on masks, hand sanitizer and the goodwill of strangers who choose to become vaccinated themselves.
Some people may not fully understand the connection between adults becoming vaccinated and how that protects children. The COVID-19 delta variant is highly contagious and is creating a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Yes, there are some breakthrough infections among those who have been fully vaccinated, but this is not common. More than 95 percent of the hospitalizations we are seeing for COVID-19 are from those who are not vaccinated—including children ages 11 and younger, who are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccines. However, if more adults and teens became vaccinated, this would slow the spread of the delta variant significantly. If every eligible adult and teen were vaccinated, we would likely reach herd immunity to the point that our children would be at very little risk—even without a vaccine themselves.
We are giving this virus too much space to grow. Instead of taking control of this pandemic we are letting the virus run free.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I were watching a movie about aliens who attack the earth 50 years in the future, resulting in the imminent extinction of the human species. I said to him afterwards that we don’t need to wait for aliens—we’re letting a virus kill millions right now. It’s such a morbid thought, but it really struck a chord.
Unfortunately, far too many people are not willing to do their part to stifle this virus. For those who are still hesitant—who still believe the risk of catching this virus is better than the COVID-19 vaccine—I wish I could introduce you to some of our patients. I wish you could see how serious this illness is, how despite doing everything we possibly can to help them, people of all ages are dying while they starve for breath, as if they are drowning.
It takes a toll to witness so much death and suffering.
As little as two months ago, I watched as my team and I started to heal. Morale was coming back after everything we had been through since last March. Our stress levels were dipping and normal hospital operations were beginning to resume. I was sleeping better, worrying less about staffing my team or about doctors getting burnt out or sick themselves. We allowed ourselves to let our guard down a bit and to breathe a sigh of relief—to think about vacations and eating out once again. Then the pendulum swung back and we were hit with another surge.
This fourth wave is different. This time, there is an underlying sense of frustration and disbelief, because all of this was preventable. We feel like we were let down. Like once again, we have to bear the brunt of this pandemic. I read something recently that really resonated: healthcare providers are “soul tired.”
As doctors, we signed up for this profession because we want to take care of others, to get them safely through probably some of the worst experiences of their lives. And we have done so, with grateful hearts, throughout this pandemic. But part of taking care of people is about preventing illnesses, and we are continuing to see patients who simply refuse to take the necessary steps to protect themselves. It is as if we are recommending a lifesaving antibiotic to kill a bacterial infection that is ravaging their body, but they choose not to take it and instead let the infection run its course. That is quite a gamble—literally with their lives.
Yet it is the same gamble with COVID-19; instead of treating an infection with an antibiotic, we are preventing a virus from making you sick with a vaccine. It is also baffling and disheartening that there is so much mistrust out there for doctors who risk their lives, who sacrifice so much and show up every day to help total strangers. Strangers who we inevitably build a bond with and worry about long after we have left the hospital.
In the meantime, as we wait for people to do the right thing for the greater good, we will continue to exhaust ourselves. We will continue to be on high alert, as we have been for the past 18 months. We will continue to connect patients with family members virtually as often as we can. We will continue to don masks and booties and gloves and goggles and gowns. I will continue to leave home before my children have woken up and get home with just an hour before their bedtimes because I have chosen this profession and it is my calling to serve. And I, personally, will continue to work with and watch my team with pride, as they work tirelessly without complaint. I am in awe of them. But we are not superhuman. We are also starting to fall sick, to burn out from physical, mental, spiritual and emotional exhaustion.
This disease is not unbeatable. We have vaccines that can stop it in its tracks, we just have to come together, agree to do the right thing, and get vaccinated—all of us. It is the only way to control this virus. In the sci-fi movie I mentioned, that is how humanity eventually prevented their extinction—by working together for the common good.
Last week, I took a picture of my son that I will cherish forever—it marks a milestone and the beginning of his formal education. He was wearing a mask in front of his school, and while I wish I could have captured his smile, at least I know that generations from now, when his children and even grandchildren see that photo, they will know that he did his part to make the world a better place for them.
I hope you will do yours, too.